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Spirit in the Supply Chain: Alignment of Culture and Values


Laura M. Birou, Ph.D.
Laura M. Birou, Ph.D., Associate Professor, The George Washington University, SBPM, Management Science Department, Washington, D.C., 20052, 702/994-5609
Lisa M. Ellram, Ph.D., C.P.M., CPA
Lisa M. Ellram, Ph.D., C.P.M., CPA, Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management, Arizona State University, College of Business, Tempe, AZ 85287-4706 602/965-2998

84th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1999 

Abstract. This paper and the session it supports will address that nebulous part of the supplier management process, which the authors refer to as the spirit of the supply chain. The spirit of the supply chain is the synergy that flows between the buying and supplying organizations. The concept has been loosely referred to in current articles and books that focus on flow, synchronicity, alignment and congruity. This presentation will apply these ideas to the supply chain. While difficult to articulate and quantify, this element is instrumental to long-term successful buyer-supplier relationships. Examples, frameworks, and case studies will be presented as well as encouraging and soliciting input from session participants.

Objectives. The objectives of this session are to explore the concept of spirit in the supply chain, more specifically looking at:

  • How to define the spirit of the supply chain
  • How to measure the spirit of the supply chain
  • How to incorporate the spirit of the supply chain into the management process

Basic Definitions. One of the fundamental questions to be addressed is how to define the spirit of the supply chain. For many people, the word spirit or spirituality conjures up visions of church, religion, or perhaps ghosts or some sort of new-age movement. The Webster School and Office Dictionary 's (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1990, p. 696) provides ten meanings. The ones that we are most interested in here include:

  • Real meaning or intention;
  • The essence; prevailing mood; characteristic quality.

So, for those of you who were hoping for ghosts or apparitions, you will need to look elsewhere!

Thus, the spirit of the supply chain can vary significantly among supply chains. We have chosen not to be prescriptive here, not to prematurely define what the spirit of the supply chain "should be." The right approach can vary among organizations. Rather, the spirit of the supply chain at any point in time is embodied in the intention of supply chain members. Thus, in establishing the spirit of the supply chain, it is important to have an intention. How do we want this supply chain to work? What is the plan or design for what we want the supply chain to accomplish? What is the overall goal of the supply chain?

Perhaps, just as importantly, the spirit of the supply chain involves the prevailing mood and essence, the feeling or the culture of the supply chain. This may not be as easy to measure as intention. In talking with Dave Curry, a Supply Management Director at Honda of America Manufacturing (HAM) about why HAM lets its competitors and many others come in and bench mark its practices, Dave explained quite simply, "They can copy our practices, but they cannot copy our culture and or spirit. And without those things, they will not be able to be as successful as we are."

Measuring Spirit in the Supply Chain. So one could view the spirit of the supply chain as having two distinctive but complimentary elements. First, there is the "intent," which can be measured and seen in the goals, actions and practices of supply chain members, and how these goals, actions and practices align. Second, there is the essence or the mood of supply chain members. Is trust present? Do they believe in what the supply chain is trying to accomplish? Is there a feeling of flow, and synergy in their joint activities?

Measuring the intention can be done through surveys of supply chain members, asking them about their goals for the supply chain and how they are working towards those goals. It can also be measured by looking at performance and specific results. How are they performing versus supply chain goals? Is performance improving? Is there an open dialogue among supply chain members that goes beyond the first tier in critical relationships?

The essence or the mood of the supply chain is more difficult to measure. It can be done by exploring constructs such as trust, which has been studied extensively (Moody, Lewis, Lamming). One can also look at other factors such as our belief in the integrity of our supply chain partners, whether we believe they provide us with synergy, and how committed we believe that each of us are to the supply chain (Spekman, et al.; Hendrick and Ellram). These issues, along with how to incorporate the spirit of the supply chain into the management process will be explored in more depth in the presentation.


Hendrick, Thomas and Lisa M. Ellram, Strategic Supplier Partnering: An International Study (Tempe, AZ: Center for Advanced Purchasing Studies, 1993.)

Lamming, Richard, Beyond Partnership, (London: Prentice Hall, 1993).

Lewis, Jordan, The Connected Corporation, (New York: The Free Press, 1995).

Moody, Patricia E., Breakthrough Partnering, (Essex Junction, VT: Oliver Wight Publishing, 1993).

Spekman, Robert E., John W. Kamauff, Jr. and Niklas Myr, "An Empirical Investigation into Supply Chain Management," The International Journal of Physical distribution and Logistics Management, Vol 28, No. 8 (1998), pp. 630-650.

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